Reggie Miller reminded James Harden he was a former MVP. Then the Nets star went out and played like it.
And the Knicks paid the price.
Harden’s dominance early and Kevin Durant waking up late were just enough for the Nets to eke out a 112-110 victory on Tuesday night before a sellout crowd of 18,081 at Barclays Center.
Coming off a horrible seven-turnover performance in Saturday’s loss to Phoenix, Harden had 34 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in a bounce-back outing. Durant had 27 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter.
Julius Randle had 24 points and largely outplayed Durant. That is, except when it mattered the most.
With the Nets trailing 105-103, Patty Mills tied it. Then Harden found Durant for a go-ahead 18-foot pull-up.
Randle got hit with a technical after the basket, and Durant sank the ensuing free throw for a 108-105 edge with 1:36 in regulation. Brooklyn made sure there would be no overtime.
Durant stole the ball from Randle on the next possession. The Nets came up empty, and Randle got free inside to pull the Knicks within one.
Evan Fournier tied it at 110-all on a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left.
But when James Johnson got free in the paint and drew a foul with 2.2 seconds left, the journeyman untied it at the line. He made both free throws, and Brooklyn held on.
The Nets (15-6) let Fournier get a far better look than they should, and the Frenchman just missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Alec Burks had 25 for the Knicks, who fell to 11-10.
It was a brilliant outing from Harden, and much-needed. After the Suns loss, he admitted he was struggling trying to balance scoring versus facilitating with Kyrie Irving out.
“Honestly I’m trying to figure all that out right now,” he said. “I’m trying to figure it out. I’m trying to figure out when to score, when to be a playmaker, when to run the offense, when to do a little bit of everything.”
Miller talked with Harden before Tuesday’s rivalry game, reminding him he’s a former MVP.
“What do you mean you don’t know when to score and when to pass?” the Hall of Famer-turned TNT broadcaster asked. “You never had this problem in Houston?”
He didn’t have it Tuesday night. Good for the Nets, too, because they needed every single play he made against a stout Knick team.
“I always want James to attack,” Nets coach Steve Nash said before the game. “I want him to attack and put pressure on the defense. If it ends in a shot more times than not, great. If it ends in a pass, more times than not that’s great, too. For me, I just want him to stick to that task of trying to have fun, enjoy, and attack. Be aggressive and continue to find his health, his rhythm, and his confidence.”
Brooklyn trailed 20-13 — Harden having all but two of those Nets points — before it reeled off a 16-2 run. Cam Thomas had the last three buckets in that spurt, the last a 3 off a Durant assist for a 29-22 lead.
The Nets led 33-28 after a first quarter that saw Harden pour in 15 points.
But Randle had six assists against a Brooklyn defense bent on slowing him. And he largely outplayed Durant for the first half, holding him to 2 of 9 shooting and spotting the Knicks to a 61-60 edge at the break.
“With a player like [Durant], you’ve just got to try and make him work,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said before the game. “You can defend him as well as you can and they still make [shots]. So to have the discipline to continue to do it time and time again even if he’s making those shots. He’s a shot-maker, prolific scorer. You can’t give him a steady diet of anything. You really have to guard him with your team as best you can.”
The Nets stormed out of the locker room and started the third quarter with 14 unanswered points. Harden’s offensive rebound and putback dunk — celebrated by a flex and roar — gave the Nets a 72-61 lead, and LaMarcus Aldridge’s ensuing bucket capped the run.
A Durant fadeaway padded the lead to 82-66 with 5:22 left in the third quarter. But the Knicks slowly, inexorably chipped it all away.
Trailing 86-74, the Knicks closed the third on a 10-2 run to get within four on a Randle step-back.
They kept coming in the fourth, eventually going ahead 98-95 on a running dunk by Obi Toppin. The rest was back and forth.